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Obesity debates ignoring disease complexity, researcher says

Prof. Gus Skorburg

If bioethicists and decision makers don’t recognize the complexity of obesity, then they won’t be able to develop successful treatments.

– Prof. Skorburg

Current obesity debates often oversimplify the disease’s cause by either blaming the individual or blaming the environment.

But, Prof. Gus Skorburg, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, says this is a harmful oversimplification. He argues that if bioethicists and decision makers don’t recognize the complexity of obesity, then they won’t be able to develop successful treatments.

With a background in ethics and moral psychology, and a newfound interest in One Health – that is, the interconnectedness of animal, human, and environmental health – Skorburg wanted to highlight how taking a holistic approach and considering other biological and social factors improves our ability to understand obesity and develop solutions.

“I’ve been very convinced,” shared Skorburg “that through a One Health lens, talking about health, not so much in terms of individual states, but as a relationship among individuals, their social networks, and their environments, is the right way to tackle these questions.”

Skorburg began this research with the goal of broadening the scope of obesity debates in bioethics but wasn’t initially using one particular approach. That was, until he stumbled upon One Health literature. He was struck by how well it summarized and articulated what he was hoping to do in this project.

Skorburg praises the way in which One Health reveals the limitations of overly individualistic ways of thinking, particularly in research. It was this motivation to avoid individualism that prompted Skorburg to collaborate with Nicolae Morar, a bioethicist, and consult with microbial ecologists for this project. He was intrigued by research that suggests a greater complexity to obesity than those typically reported in philosophy debates. Specifically, he was interested in research that showed that obesity may be influenced by a person’s close relationships; body weights have been found to be correlated between romantic partners. He was also fascinated by studies of the gut microbiome that considered how each individual has a unique gut microbiome that, among many other things, has an impact on their weight.

Skorburg hopes that by highlighting these examples of complexity he can encourage others to break away from oversimplified obesity debates. This way policymaking and decisions related to diagnostic and treatment options have the potential to become more comprehensive. He hopes his research will encourage further discussion of other possible variables that impact obesity.

Skorburg sees great importance in One Health and its ability to build interdisciplinary connections. “If there’s something that can bring together veterinarians, computer scientists, and philosophers, for example,” says Skorburg, “there’s something awesome about that.” He is excited about collaborating with others across departments in the future.

Read more about Prof. Skorburg’s obesity research here: https://philpapers.org/rec/AUGWWN

By Anna McMenemy


Hear Prof. Skorburg discuss what One Health reveals about traditional research practices, and how it offers a way forward:


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